Multi-talented fungi are more than just a side dish.
By Rob Arnason
From portobello burgers to shiitake-stuffed perogies, mushrooms are one of the kitchen’s most versatile ingredients. In Manitoba, their significance is heightened when considering it’s one of the only locally grown products that can be enjoyed year round.
Loveday Farms, located on the edge of St. Boniface on Mission Rd, is the largest producer in the Prairies churning out 5,000-20,000 pounds of fungi daily. They grow button, crimini, portobello, oyster, shiitake and enoki mushrooms for professional and home cooks from Northwest Ontario to Alberta. Their characteristic blue styrofoam trays are easy to pick out in the produce section of most major grocery chains.
The operation is headed up by Burton Loveday whose great-grandfather, Fred Loveday, started the family business in 1932, making it the oldest continually operating mushroom farm in Canada.
Barry Saunders, previously the Executive Chef at Inn at the Forks, cooks with Loveday mushrooms because he likes that it’s a high-quality, local product. He says chefs appreciate the diversity of the mushroom. “I think the only other vegetable that could be considered as versatile as the mushroom might be the potato.”
Saunders adds the mushroom is often undervalued, as it possesses the gravitas to be more than a sidekick. He says the presence of vitamin D and several B vitamins make it a super food. “There may be a tendency to use mushrooms as a supporting item to proteins, but many mushroom varieties are fully capable of being the star of the show.”
To explain how the complex growing process works, Burton gestures to a large pile of compost. “Mushrooms grow on compost that has a balance of carbon and nitrogen. The main ingredient is wheat straw,” he says, adding that the other components are chicken litter, soybean meal and agricultural gypsum.
After several weeks outside, the compost is moved indoors for pasteurization to destroy any unwanted bacteria in the material.
Burton takes us inside a 20-ft high concrete chamber, the size of a tennis court. A closer look reveals the floor is covered in a grid of nozzles pumping air through a massive pile of compost.
“We monitor the temperature and oxygen content with probes,” says Burton, who notes that a chamber has 1,300 air nozzles and the compost can rise to 160 F. “Hot enough to burn your hand.”
The next phase of mushroom farming is planting the spawn. Burton scoops up a handful of rye covered in what looks like white mould but is actually a culture of the root structure known as mycelium.
The rye seeds are planted into compost trays, the size of wood pallets. In the spawning room they are stacked like bunk beds to the ceiling. After two weeks the culture establishes an extensive root network turning the brown compost an eggshell white. The trays are then moved to a growing room, where two weeks later, the mushrooms are handpicked, packaged and distributed.
Burton talks about the intricacies of spawning with the ease and expertise of someone who grew up in the business. Now in his mid-forties, he spent many days at the farm next to his dad Fred. “By the time I was seven or eight, I was coming in on the weekends and making boxes… I got a quarter per box,” he recalls.
Burton will soon add to the legacy of his farm. This May, Loveday will open a second facility, east of Winnipeg to accommodate growth. Demand itself has not changed significantly, he says, but consolidation in the industry has reduced the number of growers.
Coordinating and scheduling all the steps with the help of 155 staff is not easy, but Burton enjoys the complexity of mass producing the delicious and nutritious fungus.
After showing the public around his mushroom farm, Burton knows what to expect. “People will say: I had no idea that growing mushrooms was so complicated, and I didn’t think the farm was this big.”